OVERIJSE, Belgium (VN) — Philippe Gilbert was the hot favorite to win Amstel Gold Race at this point last year. Today he fails to make CQ Ranking’s top 300 riders for 2012. Bookmakers give him 12-to-1 odds of winning, based largely on his wins in the last two editions.
“You have to be realistic,” he said yesterday. “I’m not the favorite.”
Gilbert talked at the BMC Racing bus after the Brabantse Pijl one-day race, which he won last year. It was his first race back after the Tour of Flanders and a 10-day training block at his home in Monaco. However, Gilbert’s midweek ride failed to indicate that he is back at his best. Other than an attack at 57 kilometers to go, the Belgian champion spent most of the day behind teammates Greg Van Avermaet and Adam Blythe.
“It’s not that I’m hiding during the race,” he said. “I was exactly in my place.”
With Brabantse Pijl and all three of the Ardennes classics, Gilbert hauled in 18 wins last year. He finished number one in the UCI WorldTour rankings and in the CQ Rankings, a clear 1000 points over runners-up Joaquím Rodríguez (Katusha) and Cadel Evans (BMC Racing) in the latter.
BMC signed Gilbert from Omega Pharma-Lotto over the winter to complement its team, which already included Tour de France winner Evans. Gilbert said the change and dental problems prohibited him from finding top shape early this season. He abandoned Tirreno-Adriatico last month with fever and crashed on the Cipressa at Milan-San Remo. Gilbert never found his legs in the cobbled classics, dropping out early at E3 Harelbeke and missing the two race-shaping splits late at Flanders.
“My main ambition is to re-find my shape, the shape I had last year. Either it will come or it won’t,” he explained as black clouds passed overhead. “Let’s put it this way, right now it’s not pleasant. Also because it is difficult to find a way out, to analyze why I’m lacking shape.”
Gilbert scored his best result of the year yesterday, 12th behind winner Thomas Voeckler (Europcar). Van Avermaet placed fifth. The results highlight BMC’s tough season, with its only win coming thanks to Evans in the Critérium International. At this time last year, Gilbert had already won Montepaschi Strade Bianche, a stage each at the Volta ao Algarve and Tirreno-Adriatico, and Brabantse Pijl.
Gilbert keeps reminding the press that the season is long. He also wants to perform well in the world championships in September, which use the same Cauberg from Amstel Gold as its finishing climb (albeit with more than a kilometer of slight downhill added atop the climb).
“The team doesn’t put pressure on me at all,” said Gilbert. “It’s not working out as we’d hoped, but that’s sport. You have to see the bigger picture: the season’s very long and I’ve signed for three years. I won’t panic.”
Gilbert kept his cool in the last editions of Amstel Gold and waited until inside the finish barriers on the Cauberg to strike. In 2010, he countered as Alexander Kolobnev’s solo attack faded. Last year, he chased down Andy Schleck and countered Rodriguez late.
“You never know,” he said of Amstel Gold. “Experience helps in the race, maneuvering and positioning helps to keep a good position. On the other hand, it’s a very honest race. If you’re good, you’re in front; if you’re not, you’re behind. I don’t think I’ll be in front.”